Marrakech: The Last Storytellers

Marrakech  /  Morocco News  Board -When you walk through Jmaa el Fna on a regular basis you become accustomed to all the performers that give the square such a lively and special feeling; the snake charmers, gnawa musicians, the water carriers and girly-boy dancers who flash their eyes at you from behind tasseled scarves. At one time you could have included storytellers in that list, but, almost unacknowledged, they are dying out, and it seems that there is only one traditional storyteller left in la Place, and he doesn’t perform on a regular basis now.

I was at a book reading recently of The Last Storytellers by Richard Hamilton, and it saddened me to hear that without realizing it Marrakech has all but lost a tradition going back almost a thousand years. And unfortunately, in these days of TV, DVD and pirate videos, once it’s gone we’ll never get it back. Richard has worked with the BBC World Service as a broadcast journalist for fifteen years, and spent a year in Rabat as their Moroccan correspondent. While he was there he travelled regularly to Marrakech and became so intrigued by the storytellers in Jmaa el Fna that he suggested to the BBC he did a programmed on them. It was while he was recording the program that he realized that within a very short space of time there would be no-one left to entertain the audiences with their fanciful tales. He kept returning to Marrakech over the next couple of years, searching in the Medina for the old storytellers, who were mostly dead or retired by then, so he could record their stories before they were lost for ever. The result was The Last Storytellers – Tales From the Heart of Morocco 

“Marrakech is the heart and lifeblood of Morocco’s storytelling tradition, and there have been storytellers gathering their audiences there for almost a thousand years. The stories from Marrakech are particularly rich because they are influenced by traditional Arabic stories from the Middle East, then there’s the Berber civilization that has filtered down to these stories, and some of them have influences from sub-Saharan Africa, so I think that’s probably what makes them so rich.” These tales would once have had a huge educational, religious and moral impact on their audiences, and they can often be understood on varying levels, but as much as anything they gave the listener a short break from the realities of life.

“These are really morality tales in which the underdog, the poor, the down-trodden beggar, succeeds against the evil, rich, scheming sultan, vizier or corrupt judge, and that was very important for the original audiences of these stories because they would be poor themselves, and in their own lives they wouldn’t have had any success or power or status. So I think that was their form of escapism, a bit like modern-day cinema where people go to dream, and this is what people gathered around a storyteller for.”

Unfortunately, we’re never going to be able hear the stories Richard Hamilton gathered from the storyteller’s mouth, but you can enjoy a wonderful selection of Moroccan fables in The Last Storytellers. Richard has kindly given us permission to re-print one of his tales.

The Birth of the Sahara

Told by Ahmed Temiicha

A long time ago, when the earth was very young, it was one huge garden covered in tall palm trees and perfumed jasmine, and the songs of nightingales flooded the landscape with their gently melodies. At this time, all men were loyal, trustworthy and honest. In fact, the word ‘lie’ did not even exist. But one day, someone told a lie. It was a very small lie and of no importance, but it was the end of man’s childhood and the age of innocence. So God summoned all the men on earth together and said to them, ‘Each time one of you lies, I shall throw a grain of sand onto the earth.’

The men looked at each other, shrugged their shoulders and said to themselves, ‘A grain of sand? What difference will that make? You can hardly see a grain of sand.’ And so lie after lie, little by little, the Sahara gradually came into existence, as God threw grains of sand onto the earth from the heavens above. But here and there the odd oasis can still be seen. These are the traces of the original garden, because not all men lie.


Derek Workman,  who is an English journalist living in Valencia City, Spain – although he admits to a love of Morocco and would love to up sticks and move here. To read more about life in Spain visit villa dinari





Comments (5)  

0 #1 RE: Marrakech: The Last Storytellersmbt 2013-03-02 06:49
When the satellite dishes started to appear on the roof tops of the houses, riads and buildings, that signal the end of stories for the storytellers.
man en blanc
0 #2 RE: Marrakech: The Last Storytellersman en blanc 2013-03-02 15:56
As a kid growing up in l'Oasis, Casa, my uncle would take me on Saturdays to Derb Ghalef's Jutiya for shopping, and we would spend a couple of wonderful hours listening to the storytellers.
Now, my grandmother always told me bedtime stories, but on Saturdays, the roles were reversed, I was the one recounting her the stories I have heard in the afternoon. She ate them up!
Years later, while living in Marrakesh, I seemed to have outgrown those fairy tales, except after potent sessions on the Sebsi. It was glorious!
-2 #3 RE: Marrakech: The Last StorytellersMorcelli 2013-03-04 13:43
Never liked story telling, always kept the illiterate, illiterate.

People actually believed the non sens backwardness. It wasn't the nostalgic way the author is depicting.

I did like the boxing matches that attract more folks. If you are tough enough, you get gloves and you fight.

Aziz El Alami
0 #4 RE: Marrakech: The Last StorytellersAziz El Alami 2013-03-04 16:37
Just like you Morcelli, I wasn't much of Al Halka fan... However, there was one guy in L'baladia (not far from L'Hobous -- right where all those butchers are) you must know the area not far from where you grew up... His was known by only One Word: L'Bahja - Just like Elvis. Everybody knew him and he was quite a crowd pleaser... He really knew how to put on a show. The poor guy lost his voice towards the end of his career. Not sure if that was from all the shouting he did or from his continuous Sebsi smoking. I was in that area a couple of weeks ago... Not much has changed except that the Storytellers were all replaced by Street-Vendors! Go figure!!!
0 #5 RE: Marrakech: The Last StorytellersMorcelli 2013-03-04 20:36
Yes Aziz, I know exactly who you are talking about. He used to say " lmirikan ti san3ou swarekh ou lamgharba ila shafou tiyara ti goulou WAAA ila shafou lambulance to goulou waa....etc"

Americans make supersonic rockets and Moroccans are still amazed watching planes flying by and ambulances speeding by"

At the time he lost all his teeth from that sabsi.

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